When colonists first arrived in Australia, the Aborigines warned them about the bunyip, a horrible creature that lived in deep waterholes and destroyed everyone who camped nearby. Descriptions were patchy, but most involved big teeth, sharp claws, blood-curdling screams and a voracious appetite. Many early settlers believed the story and avoided pitching their tents near a bunyip hole or billabong, and took great care not to disturb the waters too much when they were filling their billy-cans.
As time went by, and the bunyip failed to appear, many settlers forgot these precautions. Some however thought that this persistent and widespread Aboriginal myth might contain some elements of truth. They tried to gain more knowledge about the legendary creature and discovered that it was described differently in various parts of the country.
The Aborigines of central Australia claim to have seen a bunyip type creature called the Wanambi, an immense highly-coloured snake often hundreds of metres long. It had a mane and a beard, lived in all permanent waterholes, and attacked any creature that came near its home.
The Aborigines of the Coorong, in South Australia, believe the bunyip to be a huge man-eating creature endowed with a bellowing call that can be heard for miles around. It has a long neck, a head like a bird, and an elongated fur-covered body that is partly animal and partly human. This kind of bunyip lays enormous eggs and lives near water. Stories of this type of bunyip are also prominent in Victoria and New South Wales.
More modern reports say there are two species of bunyip, a common bunyip which is about the size of a small horse with a long tail, dark feathery fur and a head like that of a bulldog, but with pointed ears and large tusks. The other is a long necked bunyip, a variation of the common bunyip but with a long neck. Both inhabit watery areas or swampland and are probably the most commonly sighted.
These later descriptions are reminiscent of a prehistoric creature called a Diprotodon, whose bones have been found in Australia. So is it possible that the bunyip was merely a creature from the past? Not myth and legend wholly, but now extinct? Alternatively, the Aborigines could have simply invented the story of the bunyip to keep their children (and nosy settlers) away from dangerous waterholes, much like the stories of the Bogeyman or Jenny Greenteeth.
The Bunyip was a popular beast in Australia during the 19th century, with newspapers, writers and artists all taking advantage of the creature. However, today the Bunyip seems to have lost favour, and there have been few regular sightings of the beast after 1950.
In 1821 the Sydney Gazette published a letter from one ES Hall who stated he had seen a Bunyip near Lake Bathurst, New South Wales:
My attention was attracted by a creature casting up water and making a noise, in sound resembling a porpoise...it had the appearance of a bulldog's head, but perfectly black...This report was followed up by Hamilton Hume, who had earlier in 1818 discovered strange bones near Lake Bathurst. The Philosophical Society of Australasia were intrigued, and decided to reimburse Hume for any expenses incurred in obtaining a specimen. He failed.
In 1846 a strange skull was discovered by the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in New South Wales. In July of 1847 the skull was put on exhibition at the Australian Museum in Sydney, sparking a spate of Bunyip stories from the populus. Then in 1847 a report of a Bunyip sighting was published in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper:
It was about as big as a six month old calf, of a dark brown colour, a long neck, and long pointed head; it had large ears which pricked up; had a thick mane of hair from the head down the neck, and two large tusks; the forequarters of the animal were very large in proportion to the hindquarters, and it had a large tail.A few years later in 1852, a Bunyip was observed in Lake Tiberias, Tasmania, whilst in 1872 three men apparently watched a Bunyip gaily frolicking in the waters of Midgeon Lagoon, New South Wales. A report of the incident was published in the Wagga Wagga Advertiser:
Half as long again as an ordinary retriever dog; the hair all over its body was jet-black and shining, its coat was very long, the hair spreading out on the surface of the water for about 5 inches, and floating loosely as the creature rose and fell by its own motion. I could not detect any tail, and the hair about its head was too long and glossy to admit of my seeing its eyes; the ears were well marked.In 1886, some horsemen who were fording a river near Canberra reported seeing a Bunyip, and they promptly threw some stones at it to scare it off. In 1890 an expedition by the Melbourne Zoo failed to capture a Bunyip commonly seen in the Euroa district near Victoria. Occasional sightings continued throughout the early 1900s, and in 1932 during the development of hydro-electric plants in Tasmania, there were many reports of Bunyips being seen.
A Modern Myth
The Bunyip does not seem to hold as much mystery as it once did. Now Australian children don't tend to fear bunyips near waterholes, and the creature has become somewhat of a joke, something not to be scared of but rather enjoy mocking. Mind you, if you were on your own in the bush and heard a rustling in the leaves and an almighty great scream that caused your blood to freeze, you might just start believing again!